“The challenge is that exposure to these formerly ignored facets of American history can be unexpected for some visitors, contradictory to what many of us heard in school, and potentially very uncomfortable to learn. So it’s important to remember there are approaches to exposing people to a wider version of history that allow us to “sneak up” on previously untaught, and sometimes harsh, realities.”………..Prinny Anderson
A major grant from the South Carolina Humanities Council, the Magnolia Foundation and a GoFundMe campaign is enabling the Slave Dwelling Project to conduct living history programs throughout the state of South Carolina. The purpose of the initiative is to help fill a void that exists at many historic sites with extant slave dwellings. That void being that many sites do not have the capacity to interpret African American antebellum history simply because there are few if any African Americans on their staff. The Slave Dwelling Project has assembled African American living historians from throughout the southeast to apply their expertise to this endeavor by conducting programs that could include cooking, brickmaking, quilting and blacksmithing demonstrations. Additionally, the living history is interspersed with storytelling and history lectures.
Our third of four installments occurred at Woodburn Plantation in Pendleton, SC. Our first two sites were the Lexington County Museum in Lexington, SC and Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, SC.
According to its website:
“Woodburn is a majestic four-story Upstate plantation house built c. 1830 by Charles Cotesworth Pinckney when Pendleton became a summer retreat for wealthy Charlestonians to escape the heat of Low County summers. The plantation house was later expanded by Rev. John B. Adger to include the large double piazzas and the stock farm remained in the Adger/Smythe family for the next 50 years as a summer retreat. The 11-acre site includes Victorian carriage house with Thomas Green Clemson’s traveling coach and a Conestoga wagon, an 1810 log cabin/cookhouse, and a reproduction of the slave/tenant cabin and walking trail to ruins of other farm outbuildings. Jane Edna Hunter, an African-American activist and reformer who established the prototype of the nationally recognized Phyllis Wheatley Society in Cleveland, OH, was born in a tenant farm house at Woodburn in 1882 and her life is being interpreted in the tenant house. The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a site on the SC National Heritage Corridor. Docent lead tours of the house are about one hour. Special school tours are also available.”
One provision of the SC Humanities grant was that the chosen sites had to be geographically spread out throughout the state of South Carolina. Woodburn was added to the schedule when my effort to conduct the program at Roper Mountain in Greenville, SC proved fruitless. Woodburn board member Richard Owens did not hesitate when I made the request. Having already spent a night years earlier in the recreated slave cabin on the site did not hurt the chance of having a more robust program there at Woodburn Plantation.
When we all converged at the site, the choices presented to us of where to sleep were two cabins, the basement of the big house or a newly constructed pavilion. Despite the heat and humidity, most of us were feeling the basement because it would keep us all together and it was a space where we knew the enslaved would have slept. Despite that, some of us were feeling the pavilion because of the potential to take advantage of any breeze that might occur throughout the night.
Before any sleeping would occur, dinner at an offsite eatery was in order. All of the participants in the sleepover were living historians with the exception of Tammy Gibson, who travelled from Chicago to participate in her sixth overnight sleepover in a slave dwelling. Rick Owens, our host would also be joining us in the sleepover just as he did the first night that I slept at the site.
With no one from the general public taking us up on the invitation to join us for discussions about slavery, we talked amongst ourselves. The conversation seemed more intense based on the political climate and the recent spate of ruthless and unjust shootings of African American men and policemen.
When it was time to turn in, Jerome Bias, our cook and Richard Owens, our host decided to sleep under the pavilion. The rest of us chose the basement of the “Big House” because that is where the enslaved Ancestors would have slept. As predicted, the heat and humidity did prove challenging but as the night progressed, the environment became more bearable.
Morning came and the art of managing the individual personality of each participant became more necessary as the time for the event drew nearer. My laid back approach can be a little bothersome to some. All of the living historians who did not spend the night at the site began to show up and everyone was in place as the visitors began to arrive. It looked very promising but it turned out that we had peaked around noon. Despite that, all of the living historians performed as scheduled.
10:30 – 11:00 The Transatlantic Slave Trade Donald West
11:15 – 11:45 The Buying and Selling of the Enslaved Christine Mitchell
Noon – 12:30 The Gullah Connection Sara Daise
12:45 – 1:15 Storytelling Dontavius Williams and James Brown
1:30 – 2:00 Blacksmithing Gilbert Walker
2:15 – 2:45 Transatlantic Slave Trade Donald West
3:00 – 3:30 The Buying and Selling of the Enslaved Christine Mitchell
3:45 – 4:15 Storytelling Dontavius Williams and James Brown
In the reddest part of a very red state, the crowd showed some racial diversity. The questions were of a nature that proved that the information disseminated about slavery was new knowledge for some of the attendees. That is why it is my hope that Inalienable Rights: Living History Through the Eyes of the Enslaved can still be conducted beyond the existence of the South Carolina Humanities grant.
On Friday night, July 15, 2016, I was given an opportunity by the Slave Dwelling Project (Joe McGill) to spend the night at Woodburn House located in Pendleton, South Carolina.
There are no original slave cabins left on the property. So, I slept with Joe and others in the basement of this beautiful restored three-level house built c.1830. The experience in sleeping on the brick floors gave me thoughts of the brick-makers, bricklayers, carpenters, plasterers and the ones who cut the trees to create timber for the construction of the house. I respectfully call these men “the construction crew of history.” All the laborers who spent countless days constructing the house that became a home to generations of slave owners. Remembering the HANDS that touched every facet of this house gave me such a sense of pride in what the enslaved touched 186 years ago. To stand back and look at this old house, I said “WOW my brothers, job well done.”
I hope my experience encourages others when visiting an old farm house/plantation house, not to just see the wealth built from free labor. Remember, history cannot be changed. Focus on the perspective of the enslaved craftsmanship and take pride in seeing the works of the ancestors.
What a very special learning experience to, for a few hours, sleep onsite of a slave dwelling. Because of the efforts of the staff and volunteers of Woodburn Plantation and the pioneering work of the Slave Dwelling Project the site of the majority matters too. Thanks!
Overnight & Living History at Woodburn: Connecting with the People
Reflections from Jerome Bias, reported by Prinny Anderson
Riding home from an overnight stay and day of cooking at Woodburn Plantation, Pendleton, SC, for the third Slave Dwelling Project Living History day, I asked Jerome, who was driving, what stood out for him from the 24-hour experience. His reply touched on two related insights – the important perspective you can get about the workers as people, regardless of status, and the way that personalities played into the master-slave relationships.
Looking around Woodburn that afternoon, you could see people going about the typical activities of daily life, from fetching water and cutting up okra pods to mending a cast iron cooking tool and sewing a skirt. The people carrying out these tasks were tidily dressed, wearing hats to shade them from the sun or gloves for protection from the smithy’s fire. Some of the tools they were using were state of the art in the mid-nineteenth century – handsome ceramic bowls and sharp steel knives – and some were as simple as they could be – corn straw brooms and homespun table covers. Nothing about the people, their interactions with one another, and their application to their work marked them as anything other than cooks, seamstresses, blacksmiths or housekeepers. Although the re-enactors were portraying members of the enslaved community of Woodburn, the living history presentation allowed all of us to see them as just people. Even the Chronicles of Adam were mainly about Adam’s daily life as a child, a young man, and a father. We got to know him as a man.
Taking his perception of the members of Woodburn’s enslaved community one step further, Jerome talked about how the relationships between owners and the people they enslaved being, at least partly, a back and forth of personalities. It’s easy to assume that these relationships were simple and straightforward. The slaveholder had all the power, which he or she could exercise through threats, intimidation, punishments and physical brutality. On the other side of the equation, the enslaved people were powerless, submitting and complying.
But as soon as the living history portrayals round out our view of the enslaved workers as people with skills, personal styles, stories, emotions, and individual character traits, our view of how they might have related to their owners can be more rounded out and more complex. There must have been some plantations and some urban properties where human nature entered into how owners and enslaved people interacted. Presumably, some masters could figure out the value of relating to an outgoing, high energy cook in one way and a more reserved, even shy nursemaid in a different way. It would be in their self interest to do so, after all. Within the constraints of the condition of slavery, nonetheless Jerome considered that, if the cook felt appreciated for her skill and her character, the meals might be just that much more tasty. If the baby nurse felt confident, she might be just that bit more attentive to the baby’s needs.
Perhaps the special opportunity that living history days offer all of us is the chance to meet the figures portrayed by Don, Jerome, Nicole, Christine, Gilbert, James, Joe, Sara and Terry as people with personalities and routines of daily life, people like ourselves, rather than seeing them as some kind of “other,” a slave, a being without skills, without character, without human essence.
Woodburn Plantation: Sneaking Up on Harsh Realities – Prinny Anderson
The Slave Dwelling Project has a mission to find, preserve and interpret extant slave dwellings and to encourage their owners and stewards to use them as a means for visitors to learn more about slavery, the lives of enslaved people, and their contributions to the development of the U.S. The idea behind helping everyone learn more is that American history needs to be updated, made more complete and more truthful, including the stories of accomplished and heroic African Americans, information about their achievements and contributions to the country, and clarity about the brutality and degradation of enslavement.
The challenge is that exposure to these formerly ignored facets of American history can be unexpected for some visitors, contradictory to what many of us heard in school, and potentially very uncomfortable to learn. So it’s important to remember there are approaches to exposing people to a wider version of history that allow us to “sneak up” on previously untaught, and sometimes harsh, realities.
First, there is the immersion or experiential approach. At many overnight stays, a handful of people join the Slave Dwelling Project team in sleeping in the slave dwelling. Even though they bring bedding and sleeping mats, there is no escaping the hard floor, the cracks in the walls and roof, and the absence of glass in the windows. The insects are literally in their faces. The heat can be oppressive, and the chill bites. Water for drinking and washing has to be carried in, and even when flush toilets are available, they are never “en suite” or just down the hall. Little glimpses of the hard realities of enslaved people’s living conditions contrasts with the fireplaces, window glass, featherbeds, basins of heated water and quickly removed chamber pots found in the “Big Houses.” The contrast becomes more stark as overnighters realize that the comforts of the Big House are made possible for the slave owners by people who sleep on the floor, in the heat or cold, with no conveniences of their own in dwellings like the one they experienced.
Then there is the observation approach, which offers visitors opportunities to watch re-enactors make bricks, forge cast iron tools, chop wood, carry water, cook meals and all the other trades and occupations required to sustain a major urban residence or a rural plantation. As the bricks intended for the new wing of the Big House take shape, as the fancy wrought iron tool emerges from the fire, as the three-course meal is placed on the serving table, visitors begin to see (and smell) the contributions of enslaved people to the lives and well-being of slaveholders. They see the production of the raw materials to build the homes, the work buildings, the livestock shelters, and the barns for grain, tobacco, rice or cotton that sheltered the slave owners and the produce that earned their wealth. They smell the food that nourished the slave masters and their children, that graced their entertainments as they sought power and influence. In short, visitors may begin to see that the accomplishments of the owners depended significantly on the work and skill of the people they owned – all demonstrated without having to harp on the point.
The third approach to telling the whole story of history is through storytelling itself. Telling stories is such an old form of passing along history, culture and knowledge, that everyone is familiar with it. Everyone can get engaged with a story, the storyteller and the story’s characters. Through a series of personal vignettes, accounts of everyday life, like Adam cooking the possum, the storyteller draws the listeners in. A relationship is formed. Once listeners are engaged, they are more open to also hearing about the sorrows and hardships of the character’s life. In the case of a character who is enslaved, the story can weave in experiences of tragedy, oppression and physical pain, and listeners are more likely to empathize and to stay engaged.
All three approaches were in use at Woodburn, and have been components of each of the Slave Dwelling Project’s Living History programs. These approaches to telling the truth about slavery and antebellum history are not new or unique in the world of historic interpretation. What’s unique is the way the Slave Dwelling Project and its Living History Days have functioned much like the itinerant poets, musicians and story tellers of Africa and Europe, traveling from place to place and telling stories that the local venue is not yet in a position to tell on its own. They were “sneaking up” on education then, and we can continue to do it now.